There must be something very complicated about the bus ticket machines at Budapest Airport. We join the end of the lengthy queue at one of them, but each person takes an age and the queue barely moves. Buses come and go and we’re still a good 50 yards off, so we soon abandon it and go for a minibusz instead. A minibusz is a shared taxi, like a collectivo in Mexico or a dolmus in Turkey. All in all we’re therefore a bit later setting out to explore the city than we had planned.
So it’s 2pm as we hit the streets and with less than four hours daylight left we decide to make the afternoon a quick orientation and sightseeing tour: looking rather than going in.
Our hotel, the Danubius Astoria, is close to the old Jewish quarter, so first up is the giant synagogue, the biggest synagogue in all of Europe. Being Saturday, it’s closed to the public but through the gates we can see the Tree of Life, its silver leaves bearing the names of many of the Hungarian Jews murdered by the nazis during WW2.
A first Hungarian lunch (chicken paprikash, Hungarian pork, a decent draught beer called Borsodi), then we head towards the river, turning just before the bridge to walk up Vaci Utca, one of Budapest’s main streets and likened by some to a pedestrianised Champs Elysees. From here we detour to St Stephen’s Basilica, its huge dome visible from all around the city, its bells chiming deeply as we study its majestic facade.
Majestic is also the word for the sumptuous buildings fronting the Danube and looking from Pest across to Buda, and what an awesome view that is, too. Next we cross the Chain Bridge, built in 1849 and the first bridge to link the two separate halves and effectively turn Pest and Buda into Budapest.
Taking the steep and impossibly quaint old funicular railway up to Buda, we emerge into the gorgeous courtyards and cobbled streets which cover Castle Hill and surround the castle building itself. The main building, not an ancient relic, is in appearance somewhere between a giant sand castle and the hilltop castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but gives fabulous views back across Pest.
Darkness falls as we head back over the Chain Bridge, and the real charm and romance of Budapest emerges: floodlit Buda looks wonderful from Pest; Pest and the parliament building look wonderful from Buda. This place has some truly wonderful cityscapes.
After a quick change we head back to the Jewish quarter for our first night out, we want to try out our first ruin bar so we go in search of the much talked about Szimpla Kermizi. We see a small crowd of people spilling out of an old brick building onto the cobbled street, it’s the bar, an old battered sign hanging on chains guides us in. We step inside to another world, it opens up into a huge warehouse kind of space, bare brick walls, cool seating areas, uneven floors, unusual decor, things hanging from the ceiling, it was just a feast for the eyes, something amusing everywhere we look. There are rooms leading off everywhere, cozy corners, different bars each with different feel. Beer bars, wine bar, cocktail bar, a music bar, hookah rooms, rooms like a science lab. It went on and on like a labyrinth into the depth of the world. We find a seat at a tall table and watch the world go by as we sip our beer in the subdued lighting of this remarkable place.
A few streets away but still in the Jewish quarter is Kisuzem, a local bar we found on offbeatbudapest.com and another great place, a small corner bar full of welcome and good, cheap beer and wine, and with a stock of over 130 different rums.
Inevitably our first evening meal is a goulash, well you have to don’t you, washed down with an excellent Hungarian red. We’ve heard a lot about how good Hungarian wine is, and our first taste backs up the stories.
And so Day 1 is done and we’re ready to delve deeper into this beautiful city tomorrow. watch the world go by as we sip our beer in the subdued lighting of this remarkable place.
After breakfast opposite the Synagogue, at Bistro Synago no less, we arm ourselves with the very economical day pass for public transport and start our one full day of exploration. A mist is hanging over the city, a shame from a photography point of view but kind of adding to the winter ambience as Budapest awakes to its Sunday morning.
First use of the pass is one of the quaint old trams which operate on one of the lines, narrow and yellow and looking like they’ve seen very long service, down across the Danube to Gellért. The climb up Gellért Hill is surprisingly steep, views over the city becoming more and more spectacular as we climb. The very grand Gellért Hotel and spa look fabulously opulent, we peek into the tiny Cave Church on the way up, Sunday service in progress, then wend our way up through the wooded hillside towards the Citadel at the top.
The Citadel is built on the site of several forerunners, originally placed atop the high hill to oppress citizens with any thoughts of revolt, shortly after a major uprising was quelled. In more recent times, the square out front was filled with statues glorifying the Soviet era; these have now been quietly relocated and replaced with symbols of Hungarian liberation. Gellért himself, after whom the hill is named, fell foul of the authorities and was thrown from the top in a sealed barrel. To his death, obviously. What a colourful history this hill has.
From the Citadel we head down the opposite side of the hill and along to the funicular at the foot of Castle Hill. The wonderful views from Buda, and from the Fishermen’s Bastion, are shrouded by the mist which stubbornly refuses to clear despite teasing glimpses of sunshine, but it’s a pleasant wander around the upper parts of Buda.
It’s a bus back to the Jewish quarter to grab lunch and a beer in a classic old Eastern European dining room before it’s time to head out to the spa for perhaps today’s main event. Fortunately this involves catching the metro on Line 1, the oldest of the lines here and the second oldest underground line in Europe. This metro line is worthy of a visit in its own right; time honoured quaint stations with tiled walls, old school manned ticket booths, short platforms and narrow trains with just two carriages.
Tram, bus, funicular and a metro including this one. Now that’s a decent transport fix.
We emerge from the Metro station just in front of the grand building housing Széchenyi baths and as we queue we try and work out which package we want from the many on offer. We head off into the spa, the first pool looks so grand, surrounded by tall marble pillars giving it the effect of something from the Roman era. We walk down the sweeping steps into the pool, joining the masses to lounge around in these thermal waters, its a hot 38C and feels so good. In need of some cool air we head towards the outdoor pool, we step outside, the air temperature is just 5C, where else would you stroll around in your swimwear in such a cold environment? The pool below looks inviting, steam rising from its surface obscuring the view of the crowds wallowing in its warmth. We join them, the 29C feels so good. There is a whirlpool, it looks fun, we step into its fast flowing water and off we speed, giggling as it whisks us away, unable to stop, we go round
several times, we are like children on a roundabout. Our bodies are so warmed by immersion that it is surprisingly easy to wander around in the cold air, just in swimsuits.
Back inside the spa we move around the complex, so many pools, different shapes and sizes, varying temperatures, we sample several as we go, sticking to the hottest ones at 38C. We end the our visit with a luxurious thermal massage, our muscles pulled and pummelled for 45 minutes, feels great!
Our first experience of a Budapest thermal spa has been fantastic, fun, relaxing, rejuvenating. We feel good.
It’s a late start for our evening as a result, so we waste no time and head down into a cellar bar in the Jewish quarter, Yellow Zebra. The bar is cool and comfortable and the menu is inviting, so we end up staying at the one table all evening. Hungarian food, Hungarian IPA beer, Hungarian red wine and to finish, a shot of the local fire water, Palinka.
It’s been a good day.
Finding a great breakfast location is one of those idiosyncrasies of travel which gives a disproportionate amount of pleasure, so by the time we leave The Drum Cafe having consumed a traditional Hungarian breakfast and great coffee we are already smiling. Scrambled egg and spicy ratatouille with lumps of cheesy toast on top. I mean, come on!
The Heroes Synagogue, so named as it was built to commemorate the Jews who fell in WW1, is the largest in Europe and second largest in the world. It’s also a bit pricey to enter at 9000 forints for the two of us (that’s about £27) but its giant interior, peaceful gardens and informative museums are all worth seeing. The extensive use of wood in the interior, particularly on the boxes and balconies high above the ground and used formerly for female worshippers, makes for an unusual sight in a place of worship. In the rear courtyard is The Tree Of Life, a beautiful sculpture with the name of a murdered Jew on every silver leaf.
The museum concentrates on the persecution of the Hungarian Jewry, creation of the Budapest ghetto, and the astonishing violence of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian nazis, as they wiped out every kind of enemy, Jews included. Of course, we have studied this subject before (Krakow, Auschwitz, London museums) but no extent of reading reduces the horror of these real life stories. And all, in relative terms, such recent history.
Towards the Parliament building, alongside the Danube, is another moving memorial, a sculpture featuring large numbers of shoes cemented to the bankside paving. Hundreds of Jews were shot by the nazis right here, their bodies then thrown into the river, but not before the murderers removed, and stole, their footwear, probably the only item of value on each body.
From Judaism to Christianity, we move on to St Stephen’s Basilica, another imposing building with its huge green dome visible from all around the city. In contrast, it’s less than £1 to enter, and that’s by voluntary donation, but the interior makes you gasp. It’s a spectacular place, huge frescoes, much statuary, red and gold colouring decorating its cavernous interior. Its place in the hearts of the Hungarian people is cemented by its most coveted memento, which is apparently Stephen’s right arm, encased in a glass tomb.
Our final grand building is the Parliament building in Liberty Square, a colossal construction every bit as grand as the seat of power should be. It is one of those buildings which is as awe inspiring close up as it is viewed from afar. Armed guards patrol in strange ritual patterns, statues of war heroes and politicians abound. Hungary certainly reveres and celebrates its liberation and freedom.
The oldest tram line skirts the square and trundles back towards town alongside the Danube; it’s just too tempting to resist one last ride. Over the Chain Bridge, we make a beeline for a restaurant we’d spied on Day 1, and it doesn’t disappoint on our last meal here. Cafe Lanchid, near the foot of Castle Hill, is a great find. There are two separate rooms, the first with chequered table cloths and a quaint old wooden bar, the second a dining room adorned with dozens of posters from rock gigs in Budapest. It’s like a Who’s Who of rock gods and is fascinating to study. The food is fabulous too, and seems authentic. One last goulash soup, then szekelykaposzta, a paprika laden stew of pork and sauerkraut, a dish originating from Transylvania when that region was part of Hungary. It’s all delicious, and very filling.
And that’s about it. The 100E bus serves as an airport shuttle from Deák Ferenc Ter, and is quick and cheap, and we are soon looking back at another great city break.